CD Review of I Fell in Love by Carlene Carter

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I Fell in Love
starstarstarno starno star Label: Reprise/American Beat
Released: 1990/2007
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It’s a distant, sad memory now, but there was a time when Carlene Carter – ex-wife of Nick Lowe, daughter of June Carter Cash, stepdaughter of Johnny Cash, stepsister of Rosanne Cash – was known more for her musical talent than the tragic repercussions of her addictions. (The legal department would probably prefer we didn’t go into detail here; suffice it to say that five minutes on Google will tell you everything you never wanted to know about what Carter’s been up to since her last major-label release.)

Fittingly for a member of country’s royal family, Carlene spent the early part of her career doing whatever the hell she wanted; early albums like 1980’s Musical Shapes and 1981’s Blue Nun weren’t country sets so much as they were pop albums with a light dash of Nashville style, and she wasn’t above tweaking the establishment, as she did when she famously joked, during an early club gig, that the song she was about to play “put the ‘cunt’ back in country.”

For all that, I Fell in Love, Carter’s fifth album, found her reining in her iconoclastic tendencies. Whether this was related to the recent end of her marriage to Lowe, due to pressure from her new label, or simply sparked by a newfound willingness to play ball isn’t really important – what really matters is that it worked. The album was an unqualified commercial success, reaching the Top 20 (and spinning off four Top 40 singles) on the country charts.

Artistically, the record is a bit of a mixed bag; though it benefits from the then-steady hand of producer (and soon-to-be boyfriend) Howie Epstein, not to mention cameos from a wide array of ringers (including Kiki Dee, Levon Helm, Dave Edmunds, David Lindley, and Carter’s mother), the mostly self-written material is rather uneven. It’s impossible not to love the title track and “Come on Back,” both of which sound uncannily like songs Lowe could have written during his Cowboy Outfit period, but too much of the rest of the album relies on undistinguished neo-trad fare like “My Dixie Darlin’” and “Me and the Wildwood Rose” – stuff that would have been fine for, say, Joe Diffie, but does little to accentuate Carter’s quirky charm.

Unfortunately, it remains Carter’s commercial high-water mark; though her subsequent Warner Bros. releases were arguably better-written, they had less of an impact on the marketplace, and her personal problems derailed her career completely in the late ‘90s. There’s still hope – her ninth album, Stronger, is due to be released by Eleven Thirty this fall – but in the meantime, country fans nostalgic for the format’s early ‘90s renaissance could do much worse than this budget-priced reissue.

~Jeff Giles